Truganini (1812?-1876)

A life reflecting the tragic history of the first Tasmanians.

Bust of Truganini L1014

Stuart Humphreys  © Australian Museum

Truganini is probably the best known Tasmanian Aboriginal women of the colonial era. She was of the Nuenonne group, born on Bruny Island in about 1812, just nine years after British settlement was established further north on the mainland, close to what is now Hobart. By the time she had learned to collect food and make shell necklaces, the colonial presence became not only intrusive but dangerous. She had experienced and witnessed violence, rape and brutalities inflicted on her people. By the time she was 17 she had lost her mother, sister, uncle and would-be partner to violent incidents involving sailors, sealers, soldiers and wood cutters. At this time, in 1829, the Black War was under way and Truganini was detained at the Missionary Bay station on Bruny Island. Placed in the custody of Augustus Robinson, a government-backed conciliator who set out to capture all independently living Tasmanian Aborigines, she remained for the rest of her life under the supervision of colonial officers. Except for a short interlude, accompanying Robinson in his travels to Port Phillip (now part of Melbourne), she spent 20 years imprisoned, with other Aboriginal Tasmanians, on Flinders Island, and another 17 years in the Oyster Cove camp, south of Hobart.

Details of her biography are sketchy, predominantly drawn from the journals and papers of Robinson, with whom she was associated for ten turbulent years until her long detention on Flinders Island. She was bright, intelligent and energetic, known as one of the few Aboriginal Tasmanians rooted in pre-contact language and culture, who survived beyond the middle of the 19th century. She was frequently depicted in paintings and photographs. In 1836 artist Benjamin Law produced her bust-portrait. When the artist was putting the finishing touches on her sculpture in Hobart, Truganini was already imprisoned on Flinders Island.

When the number of detained Aboriginal Tasmanians fell below 20 in 1854, there was growing appreciation that Tasmanians were a unique human group, distinctly different from mainland Australian Aborigines. Soon this interest expanded beyond paintings and photographs. Scientists and entrepreneurs attempted to obtain human bodies for research and exhibitions. From the position of her Aboriginal beliefs and spirituality, Truganini feared that, when she died, her body would be cut into pieces for scientific or pseudo-scientific purposes as it had already happened to another Aboriginal Tasmanian William Lenne in 1869. She also feared that her remains would be displayed in a museum for public viewing. Truganini pleaded to colonial authorities for a respectful burial. Despite her pleas, her body was taken to the Hobart Museum and put on display until 1947 when, after public and Indigenous protests, it was locked in the Museum stores.

Finally, a hundred years after her death, the Palawa people, modern Aboriginal Tasmanians, succeeded in reclaiming Truganins’s remains. On 30 April 1976 her remains were cremated at the Cornelian Bay crematorium where Rosalind Langford, former Secretary of the Aboriginal Information Service in Tasmania, delivered the oration. The following morning, just seven days short of the centenary of her death, Truganini’s ashes were scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, close to her birthplace and homeland.
 


Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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